Coaching and mentoring definitions – what’s the difference?

Coaching in its present form has been with us since the 1970s. Mentoring has been with us in one form or another since the time of the Greek empire. So why can many people still not explain the fundamental differences between these two skills? 

We’ll explore what are the obstacles to being clear on the distinction. Then we’ll offer some well explained definitions. Finally, we will think about the benefits of understanding these two approaches. 

Coaching and mentoring – definition problems 

#1 – the two terms are used interchangeably. Type into Google “coaching and..” – the sentence will be completed with the word “mentoring”. Qualifications are offering in combined coaching AND mentoringProfessionals often describe themselves as coach AND mentor.  

The terms are often used interchangeably, and this leads to confusion. It is true that there are plenty of skills that may exist in both the mentor and the coach (questions, listening, pausing, focussing on next steps). But there are also several skills that one role does that the other never does. 

Also, on Google you’ll find plenty of interpretations of the similarities and differences between the two roles. Plenty are accurate, and plenty more are way off base. Often the focus is on things like the length of sessions, duration of relationship or whether the two parties work for the same organisation. These have much less relevance than the behaviour and the competencies of the coach or mentor. 

#2 The practitioner wants to change horses mid-streamIf a practitioner describes themselves and coach and mentor, they may believe that it gives them more options. Perhaps they’ll get more clients if they can offer coaching AND mentoring. Perhaps they’ll have the opportunity to share some of their hard-earned wisdom. Perhaps they think that people buy coaching, but deep down want the advice of mentoring.  

So, the myth perpetuates – that coaching, and mentoring are interchangeable, and that it’s fine to swap roles. This is something that I’ll be challenging
strongly later in the blog

Coaching AND mentoring – two clear definitions 

Coaching is a process where a skilled and trained coach supports another person to reflect on a personal or professional situation of their own choosing. The coachee will explore it deeply, identify obstacles to change, and finally to commit to some changes in actions or thinking. It can be a one-off session. But it has more power if there are several sessions with a range of topics all supporting an overarching goal. 

Mentoring may have elements of the reflective approach described above and may also have the topic being the choice of the mentee. How it differs from coaching is that the mentor is likely to be skilled in the topic of interest to the mentee (job role, technical skill, behavioural skill etc), and will almost always offer some advice or guidance. 

Both mentoring and coaching can be offered for high performers, as well as for people who are underachieving/hitting obstacles. 

The main differences, to be clear: 

  • Mentors need the subject knowledge and will offer advice. Coaches never do so.  
  • Mentors may have an agenda or set some goals. Coaches never do. 
  • Mentors may talk as much as the mentees during a session. Coaches never do.

Flexibility in the mentor’s role

We will write plenty about coaching skills in future blogs, so will use the rest of the space here to explore the mentor’s role. Unlike the coach, they have much more flexibility. Consider these areas: 

Collaborative/consultative. The mentor may be very collaborative, do a lot of listening, asking and drawing out from their mentee. Or they may take the opposite approach, and focus mostly on advice, tips and directing next steps. 

Agenda setting. The mentor may leave it to their mentee to set their own goals, levels of ambition and aspiration. Or they may choose to involve themselves in agenda setting, and suggest goals, based on their own experience of the job role, sector or industry. 

Role flexibility. The mentor may choose to play a number of roles during the mentoring relationship. As well as 121 sessions, they may support their mentee with preparation prior to a big event (chairing a meeting, presenting at a conference, job interview). They may attend events and offer feedback after them. They may invite the mentee to watch them at work. All of these enrich the mentoring relationship. 

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